Pasa Tem­pos

Al­bums by John Bullard and Wu Wei/Wang Li

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Clas­si­cal Banjo: The Per­fect South­ern Art (Bullard Mu­sic)

You scan the playlist — Schu­mann, Han­del, Bach, and friends — and you won­der how this is pos­si­ble. But no: John Bullard is se­ri­ous, and al­though he plays the banjo, he does not view that as an im­ped­i­ment to his mu­sic-mak­ing. The in­stru­ment has es­sen­tially noth­ing “clas­si­cal” in its reper­toire, to be sure, but mu­si­cians in such a quandary can al­ways turn to tran­scrip­tions. I sus­pect Bullard was for­merly an oboist, be­cause most of his pieces were orig­i­nally penned for that in­stru­ment. He in­fuses Schu­mann’s Three Ro­mances (Op. 94) with harp-like sonor­ity as Robert Kort­gaard ac­com­pa­nies on a pi­ano that has been damped to the point of pi­anis­simo, which keeps it from swamp­ing the solo line. A small vo­cal en­sem­ble, singing the chorale melody in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s De­sir­ing,” is sim­i­larly ex­iled to far­away climes — the next room, per­haps? — in Bullard’s adept, banjo-to-the-fore ren­di­tion. Alessan­dro Mar­cello’s fa­mous Oboe Con­certo doesn’t seem so wacky on banjo when you re­mem­ber that Mar­cello’s fel­low Vene­tian An­to­nio Vi­valdi wrote con­cer­tos for the man­dolin, which in­hab­its a sim­i­lar sound world. Nu­mer­ous able mu­si­cian friends as­sist, in­clud­ing two lute play­ers; this broad­ens the pleas­ant plucked­string at­mos­phere. Tran­scrip­tions of six move­ments from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are strange in­deed. But apart from that, Bullard makes a case for us­ing the five-string banjo to play classics rather than blue­grass, which at least earns him points for pluck­i­ness. — James M. Keller

WU WEI/WANG LI Over­tones (Har­mo­nia Mundi Musique) It may have been a while since you have lis­tened to a 75-minute recital of mu­sic for jaw harp and mouth or­gan, but your wait has ended. The mouth or­gan fea­tured on this CD is the sheng, a Chinese in­stru­ment of an­cient roots. The player ac­ti­vates its sound by both ex­hal­ing and in­hal­ing, which al­lows the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­tended, con­tin­u­ous tones; each note in its three-oc­tave range has a dif­fer­ent tim­bre, with the re­sult that — as the ac­com­pa­ny­ing book­let notes put it — “you might think you were lis­ten­ing to a wind en­sem­ble.” In the course of his im­pres­sive in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, Wu Wei has pre­miered some 300 pieces for the sheng, in­clud­ing 10 con­cer­tos with or­ches­tra. Wang Li is his coun­ter­part on koux­ian, the Chinese jaw harp (or Jew’s harp), whose artistry far tran­scends mere twang. The mu­si­cians ex­pand their sonic pal­ette through other skills, play­ing bawu (a Chinese flute) or leiqing (a bowed string in­stru­ment), for ex­am­ple, and ren­der­ing over­tone singing. They are mas­ters of ex­tract­ing unan­tic­i­pated sounds from their in­stru­ments and from their bod­ies. Many of their tracks are placid, though some are en­er­gized by nee­dle-sharp rhythms and tin­gling ar­tic­u­la­tion. It would be mis­guided to dis­miss this as New Age me­an­der­ing. Each track in­vites care­ful lis­ten­ing, and the al­bum as a whole can lull one into a state of deep con­cen­tra­tion. — J.M.K.

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